'The Path', Ayahuasca, and South America's Very Real Cults

'The Path''s Meyerist movement isn't the only cult around who drinks Ayahuasca as a religious sacrament. 

by Christine Jun
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In the first two Hulu-released episodes of new drama The Path, protagonist Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) experiences several vivid flashbacks after drinking ayahuasca in Peru. These flashbacks trigger tension within his marriage to Sarah (Michelle Monaghan), as well as within the Meyerist cult community to which the couple belongs.

Although ayahuasca, in the real world, is a psychoactive drug known for its healing abilities, The Path takes Eddie down several bad trips on the stuff. His powerful hallucinations include: the resurrection of his dead older brother, who reveals an evil vision of the cult’s founder, Doc, laid up in a hospital bed with a writhing, yellow anaconda.

Meyerist cult member Eddie Lane (Aaron Paul) has a nightmarish Ayahuasca drug trip in 'The Path."

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Although the Meyerist cult is fictional, many details of its behavior are not — including the ritual use of ayahuasca. The DMT-heavy brew is typically made out of Banisteriopsis caapi vines and various other plants, although the vine itself is considered to be the “spirit” of ayahuasca: the gatekeeper and guide to the otherworldly realms.

In Amazonian Peru

Ayahuasca was used as a religious sacrament in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of Amazonian Peru, and then popularized in the West in the late-20th century. Unfortunately, a result of ayahuasca’s rise in popular culture has also led false Peruvian “shamans” to start their own cults,to entice gringos-on-holiday seeking spiritual enlightenment, or a good old recreational mind-fuck.

Are religious cults who use Ayahuasca spiritually enlightened or merely deluded?

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Sainto Daime

Ayahuasca was legalized in Brazil in 1986, and more recently, in the Netherlands and Spain. The cult of Sainto Daime partakes in the psychedelic drug as part of its religious ritual. Since Daimo cult members prefer their own tailored version of ayahuasca tea, with a unique preparation and manner of usage, the beverage is not called the usual “ayahuasca,” but “Santo Daime.”

What sets “Daime” tea apart from the traditional formula is its unique mixture of the Jagube vine and the Viridis leaf known as Psychotria viridis, or the “Queen of the Forest”. The leaf was named after the figure who apparently appeared to Santo Daime founder in a vision, and prompted him to start the religion. Also, Daime members only drink the tea after it is prepared over a week-long festival called a “feitio,” during which hymns are sung as the men beat the vine into powder and the women clean and sort the leaves. Just in case you want to get in on the action, there are Sainto Daime branches in San Diego and Brooklyn.

União do Vegetal

Another Brazilian religious cult which uses Ayahuasca is the União do Vegetal (UDV), which translates to “the union of the plants.” Since the U.S. Supreme Court upheld a preliminary injunction permitting UDV’s use of Ayahuasca in 2006, the biggest branch has blossomed in Sante Fe, with 300 members.

Twice a month, the congregation meets in a ritualized setting to drink Brazilian psychoactive “huasca tea” and enter a trance-like state. That said, UDV’s four-hour ceremony seems a lot more tame, if not downright cuddly, in comparison to what Eddie Lane experiences in Peru.

Ayahuasca tea-drinking cults like UDV has a U.S. branch in Santa Fe, NM.

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UDV members start their sessions by group-hugging and donning identical uniforms of forest-green shirts featuring their cult’s logo. They sit in identical folding green chairs arranged in concentric rings facing an altar, above which hangs a picture of the cult’s founder, José Gabriel da Costa.

A cult member rings a bell, and the others line up at the altar, where a chief “mestre” fills their glasses with FDA-approved ayahuasca tea. The tea is transported up from Brazil several times a year in locked containers. After raising their glasses and chanting in Portuguese, “May God guide us on the path of light forever and ever - amen, Jesus,” UDV cult members consume their ayahuasca tea, and try to transcend their limited consciousness.

So, while Meyerist Eddie’s fictional use of ayahuasca in The Path doubtlessly entertaining, it appears that the show’s central spectacle is rooted in reality.